Over the course of his career, New York Times bestselling novelist Chris Bohjalian has taken readers on a spectacular array of journeys. Midwives brought us to an isolated Vermont farmhouse on an icy winter’s night and a home birth gone tragically wrong. The Double Bind perfectly conjured the Roaring Twenties on Long Island—and a young social worker’s descent into madness. And Skeletons at the Feast chronicled the last six months of World War Two in Poland and Germany with nail-biting authenticity. As The Washington Post Book World has noted, Bohjalian writes “the sorts of books people stay awake all night to finish.”
In his fifteenth book, The Sandcastle Girls, he brings us on a very different kind of journey. This spellbinding tale travels between Aleppo, Syria, in 1915 and Bronxville, New York, in 2012—a sweeping historical love story steeped in the author’s Armenian heritage, making it his most personal novel to date.
When Elizabeth Endicott arrives in Syria, she has a diploma from Mount Holyoke College, a crash course in nursing, and only the most basic grasp of the Armenian language. The First World War is spreading across Europe, and she has volunteered on behalf of the Boston-based Friends of Armenia to deliver food and medical aid to refugees of the Armenian genocide. There, Elizabeth becomes friendly with Armen, a young Armenian engineer who has already lost his wife and infant daughter. When Armen leaves Aleppo to join the British Army in Egypt, he begins to write Elizabeth letters, and comes to realize that he has fallen in love with the wealthy, young American woman who is so different from the wife he lost.
Flash forward to the present, where we meet Laura Petrosian, a novelist living in suburban New York. Although her grandparents’ ornate Pelham home was affectionately nicknamed the “Ottoman Annex,” Laura has never really given her Armenian heritage much thought. But when an old friend calls, claiming to have seen a newspaper photo of Laura’s grandmother promoting an exhibit at a Boston museum, Laura embarks on a journey back through her family’s history that reveals love, loss—and a wrenching secret that has been buried for generations.
"Christopher Bohjalian has created a masterpiece with his new novel The Sandcastle Girls. It is the story of a family told within contemporary time and in the 1900s during the Armenian genocide. Bohjalian was inspired to write this story in part by his Armenian father and grandparents, as well as by the history of a people who were nearly obliterated by the Turks. It is not a part of history that is routinely covered in world history books. Bohjalian said this was the most important book he has written and it shows.
We see the story not only through the contemporary narrator, a writer, but also 21 yr old Elizabeth Endicott who has traveled on a mission of peace with her father to Aleppo to help the Friends of Armenia and volunteer at the hospital. She is soon overwhelmed by the sight and smell of starving women and children barely able to walk being herded through the city streets to the center of town. Elizabeth is anything but weak-willed or weak-minded. She does what she can to ease their suffering and soon she meets Armen, a young Armenian engineer who has suffered a great loss. It is a love story that takes place during an unspeakable time during two people from different backgrounds, and follows them through the years and back to contemporary times.
As Bohjalian has deftly wound this story, within story, the readers see more than just a family saga, a love story and the horrific reality of the genocide of the Armenian people, they see how acts of kindness - no matter how small, how hidden, come together and form the beautiful mosaic that is The Sandcastle Girls."
"I've long been a fan of Bohjalian's writing. His research is always thorough and used to profound literary effect. The Sandcastle Girls is a one of his finest, if not the finest, display of that talent. It is perhaps, at least in part, because he has an Armenian heritage, and he's been thinking about this book for a very, very long time.
This story is based on the 1915 genocide of the Armenian people in Syria--1.5 million dead. He does not sugar coat the graphic violence done to the living and the dead, nor does he flinch in describing how the few (the too few) survived. His story, the 1915 era part of it, is told through the eyes of Western aide workers as well as an Armenian engineer who lost his family, a woman who barely survived a forced and brutal march through the desert, and a small girl who witnessed the rape and beheading of both her mother and her sister. The later part of the story, set in more modern times, is told by the granddaughter of two of the earlier characters. This layered tale is a love story, a war story, a family story, a survivors story, and much, much more. It is moving, heartbreaking, and yet hopeful all at the same time. It will open eyes to a piece of history that is rarely talked about, and hopefully stir thoughts of similar atrocities still be committed around the world, perhaps leading to swifter action to end them."